Stealing Corpses and Obstruction of Justice

Was Skye correct in the Agents of SHIELD episode “The Writing on the Wall,” when she said they broke fourteen laws breaking into the home of a victim? Skye might be right. Let’s count.

AgentsofSHIELD-CountingCrimesDirector Coulson and Agent Skye entered the first victim’s upstate New York apartment, which was a crime scene. The act of knowingly entering unlawfully the home would be a trespass. NY CLS Penal § 140.05. However, if they entered the property with the intent to take an item, Skye and Coulson would have committed burglary. NY CLS Penal § 140.25.

If Coulson and Skye took the victim’s artwork any other property, they would have committed burglary. There is no question the act of entering the property was a trespass.

The victim’s home was also a crime scene. The purpose of a crime scene is to maintain evidence. Taking evidence from the crime scene arguably is the obstruction of justice, because it “obstructs, impairs, or prevents” the administration of law enforcement. NY CLS Penal § 195.05.

Mack and Fitz acted under Director Coulson’s instructions and stole the body of the first victim from the morgue. It possible an autopsy had been performed by law enforcement, but that was highly unlikely.

The act of taking the corpse could be trespass into the county morgue and obstruction of justice for taking the victim’s body, because it deprived the police of evidence (in this case, the body with ritualistic markings).

There is a significant amount of case law on handling dead bodies, grave robbing, desecration of corpses, medical experimentation on dead bodies, and unauthorized autopsies.

So the question: can you steal a corpse? The short answer is literally yes, you can take a body, but things get funky fast.

Under common law, the great Lord Coke stated in the 17th Century that a “corpse has no value.” Colavito v. New York Organ Donor Network, Inc., 8 N.Y.3d 43, 50-51 (N.Y.2006). Moreover, “ancestors, ‘nor can [an heir] bring any civil action against such as indecently at least, if not impiously, violate and disturb their remains, when dead and buried.'” Id.

AgentsofSHIELD-BlindEyeNew York also has cases that address the proper treatment of corpses, specifically that those handling a corpse have a high standard of care “and that breach of the duty of care by one who undertakes to provide care of a corpse is prima facie negligence, and thus tantamount to strict liability.” Whack v. St. Mary’s Hosp. of Brooklyn, 2003 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 50, 10-11(N.Y. Civ. Ct.Jan. 22, 2003).

The classic case would be a hospital that had a freezer fail, allowing a corpse to rot. However, this is not the exact case with Mack and Fitz. There could be a claim against the morgue for letting the body “disappear,” but the victim did not have any living family members who would sue. Obstruction of justice would be the likely crime for stealing the corpse, followed by an unauthorized autopsy, and desecration of a corpse.

Simmons performed an unauthorized autopsy on the victim, not because she wasn’t a doctor, but because there is no color of law for her to perform an autopsy. Since Simmons knew the body was stolen and SHIELD is acting as vigilantes, albeit aligned with a US Senator in tracking down his brother, Simmons could not argue she performed the autopsy in good faith under the law. NY CLS Pub Health § 4210-b.

There are at least eight or nine charges that could be brought from initially trespassing in the victim’s apartment, depending on whether any art was taken, and the obstruction of justice from stealing a victim’s body from the morgue for an unauthorized autopsy.

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Josh Gilliland
Josh Gilliland is a California attorney who focuses his practice on eDiscovery. Josh is the co-creator of The Legal Geeks, which has made the ABA Journal Top Blawg 100 Blawg for 2013 to 2016, and was nominated for Best Podcast for the 2015 Geekie Awards. Josh has presented at legal conferences and comic book conventions across the United States. He also ties a mean bow tie.